Apr 232012

I have been thinking a little more about this the relationship between ‘eResearch’ and the ‘Digital Humanities’ of late; partly because it is the subject of my talk at the Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg in July, and I want to do justice to what I see as a very important topic that hasn’t been particularly well handled in the past.

There are certain unique challenges in Australia in that the eResearch agenda is quite established but the digital humanities aren’t.  And this has caused quite a lot of conflict in the past in that many in the humanities have seen themselves as being locked out of the eResearch agenda by Science and many in eResearch have viewed the humanities as high-risk and being ill-prepared to lead large infrastructural developments in their disciplines.

There is perhaps some truth in both these assertions, but I do see a way forward.  eResearch is largely an infrastructural movement (largely led by science) and thus often lacks a theoretical base and set of arguments to convincingly communicate its worth within humanities research. But if there is a theoretical base or conceptual core to the eResearch agenda; then is it ‘data’: data management, data re-use, and data interoperability.  But there is a problem here in that the data collected by agencies within the eResearch agenda is often only collected and not much else. Data is an idea (not a ‘thing’) and ideas can never speak for themselves; ideas (data) must be attached to the arguments in scholarly research (humanities research is interpretive, not positivist).

This is where the digital humanities can lead. If eResearch is building a ‘data commons’ (ie. through agencies such as the Australian National Data Service), then the digital humanities are building a ‘methodological commons’.  A method is a vital component of the research process and if we develop lots of methods, we will be able to use lots of data.  So the digital humanities needs to be strengthened to rise to the challenges otherwise we have lots of data (and lots of ideas) with no heads to put them in.  And if data doesn’t have a head then the data doesn’t actually exist (ie. data is interpretative and doesn’t really exist outside of that interpretation). And yes, I am not such a relativist to believe that there is not a world outside of interpretation, but data is not ‘of this world’ it is merely someone’s interpretation of the world.

A 'methodological commons' developed by Professor Willard McCarty et.al


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